Friday 24 January 2020

Lesser lights need to shine to keep Reds' campaign on track

Billy Holland: ‘Changing the team is so important for competition within the squad’ Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Billy Holland: ‘Changing the team is so important for competition within the squad’ Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The teams are not yet out for the weekend, but if you follow Ireland's leading lights on Instagram it doesn't take long to figure out which World Cup players you won't be seeing at the RDS tomorrow night or at the Sportsground on Saturday.

With Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Peter O'Mahony among those posting holiday snaps, Munster will be sending a rejigged line-up west to face Connacht in what is a pivotal game for their season.

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John Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery, Jeremy Loughman and Dave Kilcoyne are injured while Arno Botha is suspended, so Johann van Graan and Co will be delving into their squad during a tough period.

On Saturday, they face Connacht before welcoming an unbeaten Leinster team to Thomond Park and then they head north to face a buoyant Ulster.

After that, they head for Paris for their season-defining clash with Racing 92 in the Champions Cup.

Top of Conference B in the Guinness PRO14 after a decent start, the men in red's position was dented by their home defeat to Edinburgh three weeks ago.

And, if results go against them this weekend, they could drop to fourth with Connacht, Edinburgh and Scarlets all within four points of them after seven games.

Munster have always defined themselves by their European performance, but nothing rams home the importance of performing in the PRO14 more than their Champions Cup pool draw this season.

Failed

Having failed to top the conference last year, they ended up away to Leinster for the second successive season in the semi-final.

That defeat landed them in a pool with Saracens and Racing 92.

With Springbok heavy-hitters Damian de Allende and RG Snyman on the way next season, they can launch a major assault on winning a third European title. A strong PRO14 showing would help put them in position.

Billy Holland is well used to these weeks as he leads a youthful team shorn of leadership and experience.

"You make sure of good detail in training particularly early on in the week," he said of the key to adapting.

"Fellas coming in who haven't been in for a few weeks, they've got to get up to speed pretty quickly on the calls and the timing, their running lines, their defensive set-ups where guys who have been playing.

"It's been easy for me to shift Pete and Tadhg around over the last number of weeks in defensive lineout and manoeuvre each other around whereas it's harder with guys coming in. There is a bit of learning certainly and you'd be looking to get the learning done early in the week so when it comes to Thursday, Friday, Saturday you can focus on rugby, the physical side of it and doing what got you there in the first place.

"What drives the squad is competition and rotation and I think Leinster have done that incredibly well in the last couple of years and that's why they have been the best team in the PRO14 for the last couple of years because they have got such a good squad. You need a big squad."

Munster's panel is not as deep as their rivals to the east, but they do have good players to come in and step up. One of those who has impressed when the internationals have been away is second-row Fineen Wycherley who can also do a job at blindside if required.

Last season, he made his mark at this time of year when showing no respect for Johnny Sexton's reputation and while he has had to be patient, the young man from West Cork has slowly gained more minutes and featured against Saracens last weekend.

"Absolutely, that's the joy of that as well to see guys come up against guys of Johnny Sexton's calibre and with these interpros, guys come out of the woodwork, guys who you wouldn't have seen a whole lot of so far exploding onto the scene," Holland said.

"Likewise, you'll see guys who have had a good season to date might hack the intensity of what is three interpro games in three weeks whether you are a Peter O'Mahony or a Fineen Wycherley playing at No 6, it is equally difficult.

"In a way changing the team is so important for competition within the squad and morale within the squad with guys getting opportunities."

Unlike some of his team-mates, Holland is regular at the Sportsground and he's unlikely to get his wish for benign conditions on Saturday.

Not that it will matter, with the stakes this high there is a determination within Munster to get the job done.

"It's such a tough place to play, you're playing into the weather, Connacht always play well at home and they have this incredible never-say-die attitude," he said.

"There's not too many places where you actually walk through the crowd to get out on to the pitch. It's good but it can be intimidating.

"It's a huge points swing either way; one team will pull away a little bit one team will stay where they are so it's got massive ramifications."

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